Can you try to answer the following questions?

A.  In 1950 there were fewer than one billion children (aged 0-14) in the world. By 2000 there were almost two billion. How many do UN experts think there will be in 2100?

Graph showing potential population growth scenarios

  1. Two billion
  2. Three billion
  3. Nearly four billion

B. Which map best shows how the world’s seven billion people are spread between the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia? Each figure represents one billion.

maps of population distribution

  1. (A)
  2. (B)
  3. (C)

C. In the world as a whole, men now aged 25-34 years spent a total of eight years at school. How long did women in the same age group spend at school?

  1. Three years
  2. Five years
  3. Seven years

D. In the last 20 years, how did the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty change?

  1. Almost halved
  2. Remained much the same
  3. Almost doubled

These questions were part of a series of questions that the late Hans Rosling would ask audiences of his many talks for many years. The results were not wonderful. How did you do?

A. It’s two billion, much the same as in 2000. We have, in Hans Rosling’s words, entered the age of Peak Child. When a similar question was put to just over 1,000 British respondents nearly half guessed four billion, and most of the rest guessed three billion. Only 8% selected two billion or less.

B. It’s map B. The Americas, Africa and Europe each have a population of about one billion, while Asia’s population is about four billion – in Hans Rosling’s phrase, the Pin code of the world is 1114. Only 35% of British respondents (who were shown four maps rather than three) picked the right one.

C. It’s seven years. Huge progress has been made in improving girls’ access to education. It’s tragic when girls are prevented from going to school by cultural taboos, but the numbers affected are shrinking. When British respondents were asked a similar question, some 79% picked a figure lower than seven years

D. Extreme poverty has almost halved in the last 20 years. It’s one of the great success stories of our age. One billion people still live in extreme poverty, but six billion do not (meaning that they earn more than $1.25 per day). This news had not sunk in for many British respondents – more than half thought extreme poverty had increased in the last two decades.

If you got most of these questions wrong then you were not alone. Rosling discovered that leading industrialists, world leaders, academics and many others lacked facts about how our world has actually developed in the past few years and the likelihood of how it will continue to develop in the future. He pointed out in his many talks that if he had given these questions to a chimpanzee and told them to put bananas into an “answer basket” they would randomly have gotten 33% correct. World leaders and academics were well below the chimpanzees!

Rosling was able to use his unique presentation style and animated data which was developed by his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, to present some very famous “TED” talks that have been seen by millions of people.

He fought a campaign to get the world to shake off its ignorance about how the world is and try to understand the great possibilities that we all have for a brighter future. With the help of Ola and Anna, a website was created that shows their ideas and has some excellent teaching resources. This can be seen at the excellent Gapminder website.

Hans died last year of Pancreatic Cancer. The last thing that he worked on was a book that he wrote along with his son and daughter-in-law. I have just finished reading it and think it is certainly one of the best and most important books that I have read in a very long time. Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame) is a great enthusiast for the book and has arranged to give a copy of this important book to every U.S. student graduating college in 2018.

If you get the chance I would strongly recommend that you read this book. I feel sure that you won’t regret it and know that it will change the way that you look at our world.




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On reading stamina

I have just finished reading “4321” by Paul Auster. This was a very long book, the best part of 900 pages.

I have read a few long books in my time, notably “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoi. In the case of the latter book, I found that I needed what amounted to a reading equivalent of stamina.

I looked up a dictionary definition of “stamina” and found the following:

“the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort.”

I think that this explains the connection between being a long distance runner and reading a long book. Both are tests of endurance and both will test your ability to stick with something that, at times, does not seem to have an end!

I know a bit about long distance running having completed two consecutive London Marathons and a Great North Run. These events require training in order to get the body to a point where it can cope with the physical pressures of keeping your legs pounding the streets for mile after mile. They also require the ability to not give up. This is totally a mental process that is very much a factor when reading a long book.

When I first started to jog I learnt to stretch before I did any running in order to get my muscles ready for prolonged activity. I built up the distance that I ran on a weekly basis because nobody can just run 26 miles without thorough preparation.

How I built up the mental ability to keep going, despite the fact that you feel like you are about to drop from sheer exhaustion is something that I cannot easily explain. That sort of ability to keep on going despite obstacles is a skill that has now been seen in education as a vital ability that can lead you to succeed in education and indeed in life (with professions for example or even in a marriage!).

I have read a book by Angela Duckworth called “Grit

The following video explains the main points well:

“Grit” is about the ability to carry on despite obstacles. It is about endurance and physical/mental strength. It is about overcoming setbacks and fighting the inner demons that say “give up” “have a rest” “is it worth it?”.

But it is something else and that is about a certain obstinacy of character that wants to get something done and is prepared to go through problems in order to get to the finish line.

The above photo shows me (the one with his arms up 2nd from left) finishing the 1993 London Marathon in a respectable time of 4 hours 26 minutes and 38 seconds. What it does not show was the utter exhaustion that I felt about three miles before it was taken. I remember stopping and thinking “shall I have a rest?” then “shall I give up?” “is it worth it?”.

I was motivated by the fact that there was a lot of charity money riding on my ability to finish. In the end though, I, along with thousands of fellow joggers on the day, used our innate obstinacy to persevere and keep very tired legs going and use the last bits of energy that we possessed to cross that line.

Reading a long book does not entail physical exhaustion but it does entail the strength of mind to persevere, even when the going gets tough. Paul Auster tested me with some rather strange digressions. He had a book that was about a person named Ferguson who lives different lives. At times it took time to realise which Ferguson he was referring to. He linked in threads that formed a constant like members of Ferguson’s family but these changed according to circumstances.

I have found that, after I reach a certain point in a long book I get a steely determination to see it through. I remember in the case of “War and Peace” that I found digressions by Tolstoi into historical discussions about Napoleon very wearying but I wanted to reach the end for no other reason than I would have the ability to say to myself that I had the staying power to get there.

The same is true of “4321”, I persevered during some rather difficult (to understand) passages but got to the end and was so pleased that I did. This post was never intended as a full review of Auster’s book. I am sure that there are others who can provide greater insight and criticism than me. I wanted to discuss the process of having and using “grit” and how important it can be in not just reading a book or getting to the end of a gruelling marathon but in life generally.

My reward for perseverance was that Auster’s ending of his long book is well worth waiting for. He pulls the threads together masterfully, something I would never have discovered if I had decided to stop reading and not continue at page 323!

If you wish to find out what the ending was you will have to read the book yourself. It is long, it is challenging (I learnt a lot about the films of Laurel and Hardy and French poets that I had never heard of!) but if you persevere you will hopefully feel like me that it has been worth it.

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Towards Roddenbury’s vision?


Gene Roddenberry was an extraordinary man. He was a bomber pilot in World War 2, a policeman in the Los Angeles Police Department a scriptwriter for television (specializing in westerns and crime dramas) and the creator and guiding light of possibly the greatest Science Fiction series ever seen on television, Star Trek.

In the series, he created a future in the 24th Century where the Earth had overcome the huge problems of rival ideologies and divisions by race and religion and had embraced world government.

It even looks like the UN flag.

“The United Federation of Planets” took the concept even further whereby the early pioneering space flights in the 1960’s (when the series was first written) would lead man to explore space “The Final Frontier” not for conquest and gain but to develop our place in the Universe and learn about other cultures/races/beings. Indeed an “alien” being from the planet “Vulcan” was one of the stars of the series in the shape of the pointed-eared logical “Mr. Spock” (bottom row, right).

A mixed cast when such a thing was almost unheard of.

Although it was always discussed throughout the series, the struggles of humanity to reach the stage of world peace and government were never gone into in any detail.

This week I have started a new Mooc from “Futurelearn” about “Globalisation”.


The course is directed by Professor Richard Baldwin of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

I have to say that I have found this a particularly fascinating and topical course given the many problems we are facing at the moment with the rise of nationalism and populism, international terrorism and the way that technology, in particular, has transformed the world, notwithstanding the continuing progress of Artificial Intelligence and how that may cause massive disruption in the future.

The first part of the course looked in particular at a case study of China and we were able to watch part of a fascinating American Documentary series (originally on Discovery Channel in the U.S.) called “The People’s Republic of Capitalism“.

I have to say that I found this series provided a real insight into how a predominantly poor and mainly agrarian nation has made massive and ferociously paced change into a booming capitalist economy (whilst still keeping a rigid communist party directing political life).

The series showed how there have been tremendous winners and losers in the process. The people highlighted showed the transition from poor villages to the booming city of  Chongqing, a city of 13.5 million people in southwest China a  boomtown of luxury goods and nonstop construction, it is emblematic of the face of Chinese capitalism but is unknown to many in the west.

We were able to see the vast difference between the subsistence existence of the surrounding villages and the bustling. increasingly rich industrialists who ran factories for big multinational companies using labour from the surrounding villages who paid very low wages by western standards but which was seen as a step up in by the workers from their previous village existences.

One woman from a village is seen as using almost half her income to send her daughter to a local school so that she can have the potential to succeed in the booming capitalist economy. We see a newly rich couple living on a private estate in the suburbs of the city driving a large BMW car and importing a hugely expensive sofa from a prestigious American furniture manufacturer!

I found myself watching a modern version of what it must have felt like to wander into cities like Manchester from the surrounding farmlands in the 1820’s as the Industrial Revolution in the U.K. was transforming not just one country but eventually the whole world.

Now I would imagine that you are asking what all this has to do with Gene Roddenberry? Well, Professor Baldwin puts forward a view that globalization has actually been a force for good! He agrees that there are casualties and that the change from a subsistence existence in a rural economy to life in a bustling city like Chongqing but in the long run it actually reduces poverty and leads to longer lives with better health.

This may not seem obvious in the cases of China and India where rapid industrialization has led to massive pollution in cities such as Beijing and New Dehli. Baldwin sees this as a process, exemplified by the “Satanic Mills” of early 19th century Manchester and the modern city where descendants of the poor workers who lived in slums when they made their way to the rapidly industrializing city now live longer healthier lives.

To back up his contention he shows us the following:

Has globalisation increased world poverty?

In a fascinating article titled “Global Extreme Poverty”, economists Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina of the OurWorldinData.org website, document how world poverty has plummeted over the last two or three decades. This is not, of course, an argument to say that globalisation has reduced extreme poverty, but it is enlightening since many people believe just the opposite.

For example, a survey done in Britain found that the majority of people believe that extreme poverty has increased worldwide. Almost 90% thought it had increased or stayed the same, only 12% thought it had fallen.

Alt Survey results

It has, of course, decreased. Only 12% of people surveyed in Britain thought this was the case. The numbers were much higher in those asked in India and China, where the realities of economic change could be seen and felt. Here is a graph that exemplifies the change in extreme poverty worldwide in the period from 1820 to 2015:

From the 1970’s onwards the pink area (those in extreme poverty) has declined at an accelerating rate whilst the number in the green (not in extreme poverty) has risen steeply from about 1960 onwards. (Extreme poverty is calculated as having to subsist on wages of $1.90 a day).

Baldwin posits the theory that was discussed by my fellow students that in fact, the world has the potential to eradicate poverty and that we are learning to exist and cooperate at an international level. Indeed we may still achieve the Utopian vision that Roddenberry put forward in the 1960’s.

It is an interesting point, which runs parallel to Steven Pinker’s assertion in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that despite the violence of terrorism and continuous wars in places like Syria, we are actually, as a human race, becoming less and less violent.

Pinker and Baldwin may be considered apologists for rampant capitalism or they might have a point that capitalism could prove the handmaiden of a better world in the future. I have my doubts but I feel that they deserve to have their point-of-view and we need to consider the weight of their arguments.



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Joachim Prinz the forgotten Civil Rights hero

I have been reading the book 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. In the book he mentioned that the hero who he always refers to as Ferguson was influenced, as so many other people were in 1960s, by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the book he mentioned that as a local boy raised in Newark New Jersey he was proud that one of the speakers in the famous 1963 Civil rights meeting in Washington where Dr Martin Luther King made his most famous speech “I have a dream” was his own local Rabbi, Rabbi Prinz.

I have to admit That I had never really heard of this person. I therefore decided to research him. I found out that he had been a young Rabbi in the early 1930’s in Berlin where he bravely stood up to the Nazis until he had to flee in 1937 to go to the United States where he settled in Ferguson’s beloved Newark, a position as Rabbi at the Temple B’nai Abraham where he worked until his retirement in 1977.

Prinz was able to see that the country he moved to had some things in common with the country he had fled. In 1963 he gave the speech just before Dr. King’s famous “Dream” speech. His speech, although not as intense or as well known was still very powerful as can be seen in the following video:


I think the most powerful part of the speech is as follows:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

Prinz could see comparisons with the ghettos of the American cities and the experience of the Jews of Europe. The outsiders of their societies. Victims of having their rights infringed. People who were persecuted, victimised and unable to achieve their potential. He saw the fight for black civil rights as being the same fight that he had fought in Germany and he was able to strike up a powerful friendship with Martin Luther King, the leader of the movement.

In the following picture he is standing next to Dr King when they met President Kennedy after the “March on Washington” was over.

He was involved in marches in the American south where he was never too far from his friend Dr King.

I have been so pleased that a modern novel has led me to find out about a man who deserves to be remembered a lot more than has been the case in modern history. Perhaps in a very small way this post has helped to rekindle the memory of an undoubtedly brave and significant figure in the fight for human rights.

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An experiment in writing

This blog post is different from the rest because I’ve actually dictated every single word of it into my iPad.

I have been trying to see how I can write a post using just words that I speak.

The iPad comes with an interesting option of being able to dictate words which are then typed onto the empty page in front of you. There is a certain wonder to all of this.

I must admit the main reason I have had difficulty in the past few months writing any posts is because of the sheer difficulties of typing on my laptop or on my tablet. The older I get the more I get fed up with the mechanics of writing particularly the thumping away on a keyboard making loads of mistakes and having to go back and correct each one of these and every now and again in finding that hitting the wrong button could suddenly lose everything!Most of you reading this will appreciate how I feel and how all that hard work can be lost so quickly and you regret so much that you did not back it up as you went along.

The difference now is that I see what I write as I speak make it and I’m able to correct it afterwards only to the extent that it made simple errors based on my rather difficult pronunciation.

So far I have found this extremely easy process, the problem of course will come when I realise that speaking is a totally different process to writing.

I have in the past seen many people professional writers who are able to dictate to secretaries and type it’s a very able and interesting piece of work that later becomes a book or a story or a published article in a newspaper but actually having gone through the process in the last few minutes I’ve tried to make it a reasonably interesting Post using only my voice. Not typing at all is not all that easy but having said that sometimes the words to flow and I’m able to see in front to me the absolute wonder of a piece of writing created from just my dictation.

My feeling on this is that this first experiment has been something of a success. I suppose I haven’t actually written anything other than my reflection on the process of creation using only my voice but, and this is a very big but, it has been remarkably easy, has been remarkably quick and I have been able to write something or dictate it right onto the screen. It has been wonderful to see the words that I say actually printed in front of me as I speak. I hope in the future to be able to actually write some sensible posts using this process. I think probably I will need to work out what I’m going to say before I dictate, so a plan or some bullet points would be needed. I really feel though that this is going to be a very useful process and hopefully it will lead to me being able to “write” a lot more in the future for your edification.

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Climate Change: a great infographic

I have recently come across this excellent infographic that explains so much about human development and the various climates that we have lived through.

The thing to do is to scroll down to the last 200 or so years and see how economic growth  has contributed to a rightward movement in the Earth’s average  temperature. Compare this to the very long almost strightline that covers thousands and thousands of years. The dotted lines show scenarios that may happen.

Source : https://xkcd.com/1732/


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The Family

The Family

I have just finished reading “The Family” by David Laskin. It is about one Jewish family that took three directions as a result of revolutionary events in the Jewish Pale of Settlement at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The family are Cohens (the Priest group that are supposed descendents of Moses’ brother Aaron and were the Priests and Scribes throughout Jewish history).

Laskin uses his own mother’s family who descended from Shimon Dov Hakohen and his wife Beyle Shapiro. Shimon Dov is a scribe, who spends his time writing the sacred books of the Jews (The Five Books of Moses) and sometimes the tiny parchments that  go inside a “Mezuzah” that hangs outside every door in an orthodox Jewish house.

The book covers how his family in the twentieth century split three ways. There were those who stayed in the Stetls and towns of Belarus where they faced pogroms, war, revolution and ultimately total destruction in the Holocaust.


Another branch went to America where they joined thousands of refugees coming through Ellis Island into the overcrowded tenements of the East Side of New York where they peddled goods, made clothes in sweat shops and became street traders.

These people learned to speak English and slowly became upwardly mobile. Laskin gives the extraordinary example of his aunt Ida Rosenthal who founded The Maidenform Bra Company which became one of the largest family companies in the United States.

The third branch of the family followed the Zionist Movement that became very powerful in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and made “Aliya” by going from the violence and discrimination of their Eastern European home to a largely barren and under-devoloped land in the Middle-East that had once been the home of their ancestors but was now run (as it had been for many years) by Arabs.

They came into pockets of contested land and by sheer hard work managed to make the desert into a rich agricultural area. They founded new towns and cities like Tel Aviv and Hertziliya and formed socialist/communist cooperatives that were called Kibbutzes.

They were not accepted with open arms by the Arabs and Laskin shows how hard it was to settle into a land that was very different from the settled agricultural lands that they left to become pioneers in the would-be Jewish nation.

It was though, the ones who did not leave that perished in so many horrible ways at the hands of the Nazis and, as Laskin so vividly points out, local people, who used years of anger and envy to “ethnically clean” their land.

Laskin pulls no punches. He describes the death of old, middle aged and young in great detail. It was difficult to read at times but showed why a whole section of his family, like those of so many other Ashkenazi Jews, was literally wiped out in the early 1940’s.

I was so impressed with the book that I wrote to the author. This was our correspondence:

Dear  David,

I just wanted to say how much I got from reading your excellent book.

I came upon it as a recommendation as I have been taking the early steps of researching my family history with Ancestry.com

As it happens my family on my father’s side were Cohen but finding out about Cohen’s from Bucharest is a bit of a thankless task!

I have had more success with my mother’s family and have found a possible second cousin who was a scientist on the Atom Bomb project at Los Alamos and later  became a peace campaigner!

For many years I believed that my family on both sides, having finished up in the U.K. had escaped the horrors that you so graphically write about in your book but some research on Jewish Gen has shown a whole branch that died in what was Poland and is now the Ukraine.

I felt that I got to know your family so well reading the book. I cried a lot but I also learnt so much.

Well done and thank you.

The reply was:

Dear Malcolm,

Many thanks for the message and for your kind words about the book.  I really appreciate your taking the time and trouble to write.

Strange how we both grew up believing our families had “escaped” the horrors of the Holocaust only to discover that an entire unknown branch had been murdered.  These discoveries are why I never tire of family research.

I cherish your last line: “I cried a lot but I also learnt so much.”  I have done my job!

I wish you continued success with your own search into the past.

Best wishes, David

I shall be continuing to try and  piece together my family’s history.  I do not think it will be easy and I will come across a lot of false trails but, like so many, it will be a worthwhile persuit. My ancestors are how I came to be. One change in the pattern and I would not exist. When you think of it the whole thing is amazing and somewhat unlikely.

David Laskin’s book is a great read and, if you are a would-be genealogist like me, a great example in how to go about getting the pieces put together.

His family (like mine) are not just sections of a diagram. They had lives of joy, hatred, despair, elation. They loved, they sang, they danced, they had their dreams and they lost loved ones.

Ultimately, they disappear from the Earth and become just names on a diagram. But the power of Laskin’s book is to bring all of these people so vividly to life. If you want to understand the Ashkenazi Jewish experience of the twentieth century, indeed the impact on all of us of  the enormous changes that revolution, financial collapse and war then you can do no better than read this excellent book.



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